Punished for parody, student sues school
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A high school senior from Hermitage who was suspended and moved to an Alternative Education Program for creating an online parody of his principal has filed a federal lawsuit against the district.
The suit was filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Justin Layshock, 17, a student at Hickory High School. It claims that the Internet posting is protected under the First Amendment and asks that Justin be reinstated to his classes and that any mention of the incident be removed from his school records.
A hearing for a temporary order asking the school to let Justin return to his regular classes is scheduled for Monday before U.S. District Court Judge Terrence F. McVerry.
"I can't figure out what these folks are thinking," said Justin's lawyer, Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
No administrators from the school district could be reached last evening.
Justin, who maintains a 3.3 grade point average and is enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, created a profile Dec. 10 of his high-school principal, Eric W. Trosch, on the Web site, www.myspace.com.
The site asks various questions to include in the profile, such as fears, weaknesses, favorite pizza and bedtime. In the profile Justin created for Mr. Trosch, he answered the questions with "variations of the theme 'big,' since Mr. Trosch is a large man," the lawsuit said. He also posted a photograph of Mr. Trosch that he copied from the school's Web site.
Some of the answers Justin posted included vulgarities, and for the question "what did you do on your last birthday?" he wrote, "too drunk to remember."
"It's all fat jokes," Mr. Walczak said. "Not to excuse it, but school officials need to understand that they're not parents. School officials can't reach into parents' homes and tell them how to raise their kids."
Justin created the profile from a computer at his grandmother's home, and he never accessed it from school, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Walczak contends that the profile contained no threats or obscenity, as defined by the law.
Three days after he posted the profile, Justin tried to remove it, Mr. Walczak said, but it had already been pulled from the site.
Then, on Dec. 21, Justin and his mother, Cheryl Layshock, were called in to meet with the school superintendant, district solicitor and the co-principal of the high school, Chris Gill, to discuss what they called "a potentially serious matter."
After that meeting, Justin both went to Mr. Trosch and sent him a letter of apology. He thought, Mr. Walczak said, that his apology had been accepted and the matter was finished. But on Jan. 3, Justin and his father, Donald Layshock, were called to the Hermitage police department and told that Mr. Trosch had asked that harassment charges be filed against Justin.
The officer said he would not file charges unless directed by his superiors. None have been filed.
On Jan. 6, a hearing was held by the school to consider disciplinary action against Justin on charges of disrespect; harassment; gross misbehavior; obscene, vulgar and profane language; and for violating the school's computer policy for using a picture without permission.
At that hearing, the school gave Justin a 10-day, out-of-school suspension and ordered him to finish high school in the Alternative Education Program. He has been told he cannot go to any of his regular classes.
The administration also banned Justin from participating in any school events, including the French tutoring he did for middle school students and attending his own graduation in the spring.
On Jan. 11, Justin's parents went to Mr. Gill and asked if Justin could serve a different punishment, such as community service or extra tutoring, but their request was denied.
"They're interfering in this kid's education. He's stuck in a room in the basement of the school," Mr. Walczak said.
Earlier this week, Justin was admonished by school officials for trying to speak with his trigonometry teacher, his lawyer said.
Besides the current punishment against Justin, the lawsuit also contends that this could have long-term effects on him.
He applied to Penn State University for college next fall, and he received a letter on Wednesday, telling him that a "registration hold," was placed on his application due to a "dismissal/suspension from Hickory High School."
"Is it offensive? Probably. Is it likely to make the principal feel bad? Probably," Mr. Walczak said. "But it's done in his own home, and the school has no business, or no authority to punish the student for this."
First Published January 28, 2006 12:00 am